The public reaction to the sex abuse scandals that have rocked the Vatican and Roman Catholic churches worldwide is causing rank-and-file Catholics to leave the church in droves. But concerned parents need to be wary about more than just the Catholic brand of clergy. The public rightly became disenchanted with an institution that claims moral authority while acting like those who it would condemn for their immoral behaviors.
The trend of less-than-holy behavior is not limited to the Catholic Church, although they have received the majority of the media's attention and the public's criticism. Recent cases such as that of Pastor Tony Alamo, who was convicted of abusing several young children and forced the government to remove children at his ministry from their negligent parents, shows that sexual abuse exists in different religious communities. It appears as though many institutions that have a tradition of powerful clerics that guide the community also suffer from allegations of child sexual abuse. This situation is often worsened when the religious institutions attempt to handle the matter internally by trying the offenders in a religious court instead of reporting the abuse to secular authorities.
Take for instance the allegations of sexual abuse in several Hasidic Jewish communities, where young boys were routinely abused at religious schools and community gatherings. These children weren't able to come forward with their allegations for years because they feared being cast out from the religious community for accusing one of their "holy" leaders of such a despicable crime. When the boys finally did come forward the rabbis were tried in an ecclesiastical court, much like the Catholic priests who were accused of similar crimes. These courts exonerated the rabbis of their crimes and halted efforts to pursue secular justice against the offenders.
Sexual abuse of children is seen in other religions that emphasize a strong clergy and utilize religious courts, such as in Islam and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In Pakistan there are many allegations regarding sexual abuse of children in Islamic religious schools called madrassas. This abuse of children is not widely discussed by the victims, as the religious community routinely shuns those who come forward and "dishonors" their religious leaders. The same situation occurs with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, whose leaders are accused of wide-spread sexual abuse of children. American Southern Baptist churches also suffer from the same problem, as a bishop was recently accused of abusing a group of young boys in his mega-church. It appears as though these different religious communities, all of whom abide by distinctly different scriptures, share common ground in their efforts to silence victims of sexual abuse through marginalization and exclusion from the community.
Sexually repressive religions suffer numerous allegations of sexual abuse, which makes sense when you consider the effect that their scripture might have on normal sexual behavior. Statements such as "I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:28) and the emphasis by religions on abstaining from sex until marriage creates a repressive sexual environment that prevents healthy discussions about sexuality. This repression of sexuality discourages victims of sexual abuse from discussing the traumatic event because of the emphasis by the religious community on refraining from discussing sexual matters.
Sexual abuse occurs not only because of the specifics of a sexually repressive religious doctrine, but because the leaders of the religious community are given extraordinary power over their followers and are nearly immune to prosecution for their crimes because of the emphasis by those religious communities on handling criminal matters in religious courts. This method of self-prosecution is an obvious conflict of interest, as the community will be less to pursue any action that embarrasses the faith, even if such inaction comes at the expense of justice for the victims.
As human beings, we must feel for the plight of the victims and work to ensure that religious courts have no legal authority to protect criminal behavior. Victims of sexual abuse should not be ostracized or marginalized; rather, they should receive support and legal justice for the crimes that have been committed against them. Religious leaders are never above the law, no matter what faith they hail from, no matter their claims of moral superiority. Their "moral authority" does not grant them permission to do what they please, especially when they use that authority to silence their victims.
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